The Washington Military Department is eyeing Richland for a new campus for its Youth Challenge Academy, a military-style residential school for at-risk teens.
There are 40 National Guard Youth Challenge Academies in the U.S., but only one in Washington, in Bremerton. The program serves young men and women who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of doing so.
Maj. Joseph Siemandel, spokesperson for the state military department, said the Bremerton academy receives far more applications than it can accept.
To be eligible, prospective cadets must be between the age of 16 and 18, have clean legal records and be willing to attend free of coercion by courts or parents. Students are more likely to succeed if they have agency over the decision, according to the National Guard. Tuition is free.
The military department has not made a formal proposal and there is no funding yet.
But it sees Richland as a good spot to expand into Eastern Washington. The department recently completed a $14.2 million readiness center for the Washington Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment, on land it owns in Horn Rapids Industrial Park.
The 40,000-square-foot readiness center occupies a portion of the 40-acre property and there is room to add an academy. The location would provide geographic parity for prospective cadets.
It would echo the Bremerton campus, where cadets spend the initial five-and-a-half months living at school. Graduates continue their education with a yearlong post residential phase.
Cadets are paired with adult mentors from their hometowns to help guide them as they implement the changes they have made when they return home.
The Challenge Academy in Bremerton serves about 330 students a year. In 2019, 713 youth applied. In 2022, the figure rose to 873.
Siemandel said applications rose as the pandemic compounded the experiences of youth who were slipping through the cracks even before traditional schools shifted to remote learning.
“Now, more than ever before, the (academy) is receiving more applications than our capacity of 330 per year can serve,” he said.
The existing academy has added an admissions specialist to keep up with the volume of applications and it intends to hold an orientation in central Washington, which is a source of many applicants.
Cadets are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. The program considers age and the specific academic and life circumstances of applicants. There is no socioeconomic requirement, though past classes have tended to draw cadets “in need of educational justice,” Siemandel said.
The Richland academy would be coupled with a program which offers graduates an opportunity to continue and train for specific trades.
The academy would have classrooms, living quarters with study spaces, a dining facility, indoor and outdoor training and recreation areas, offices, a health care center, supply spaces, conference rooms and multipurpose areas suite for assemblies, drill and ceremony competitions, team building, field days and special visitor events.
The program is not only voluntary but includes multiple layers of oversite to prevent abuse of young cadets, including regular contact between cadets and their families. The campus is open to scheduled visitors and open houses are a regular feature.
It adheres to a “Hands-Off Leadership” policy that distinguishes between appropriate and inappropriate touching. Academy staff are mandatory reporters and must report any potential issues.
The Washington Military Department and the National Guard Bureaus Youth Programs in Washington, D.C., both receive reports, which are investigated immediately.
The program and curriculum are designed to help cadets recover up to eight high school credits (about 1.3 years in a traditional school), inspire a life long love of learning, grow in job skills, physical fitness, health and hygiene.
The academy in Bremerton opened in 2009 and is regularly rated among the top three Challenge programs in the nation.
The next session begins Jan. 16, 2023, in Bremerton.
Go to mil.wa.gov/youth-academy.
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